A protester wears a "No Nukes" hat during an anti-nuclear demonstration march in Tokyo on March 15, 2014.
Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

So much for the new ‘nuclear arms race’

Despite his recent electoral failures, Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) hasn’t abandoned his national ambitions. In fact, in an interview with Time last week, he even boasted that he would have defeated President Obama “without a doubt” had he been the GOP nominee in 2012.
And as he gears up for another try, Santorum is even starting to talk more about foreign policy. In reference to President Obama, the former senator said, “Here’s a president whose main goal is stopping nuclear proliferation, to get a deal with the Russians, which was a bad deal that gave the Russians a decided edge in nuclear weapons – that was his big thing, START II.”
Santorum added, “[W]hat [Obama’s] done is start a nuclear arms race because the U.S. is not standing by its commitments.”
It’s tough to take any of this seriously. For one thing, the Obama administration hasn’t broken any of its international commitments. For another, Santorum’s complaints about START II were debunked years ago.
And as for Obama starting a new “nuclear arms race,” there’s ample evidence to the contrary.
Japan will announce Monday that it will turn over to Washington more than 700 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium and a large quantity of highly enriched uranium, a decades-old research stockpile that is large enough to build dozens of nuclear weapons, according to American and Japanese officials.
The announcement is the biggest single success in President Obama’s five-year-long push to secure the world’s most dangerous materials, and will come as world leaders gather here on Monday for a nuclear security summit meeting. Since Mr. Obama began the meetings with world leaders – this will be the third – 13 nations have eliminated their caches of nuclear materials and scores more have hardened security at their storage facilities to prevent theft by potential terrorists.
This looks less like Obama starting “a nuclear arms race” and more like Obama doing the opposite.
Remember, last year Ukrainian officials gave up more than 500 pounds of weapons-grade uranium. What’s more, four months ago, Iran agreed to at least temporarily stop enriching uranium beyond 5%, while scrapping its stockpile that’s already been enriched to 20%.
And now Japan is giving up more than 700 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium.
To be sure, this does not represent the entirety of the country’s overall stockpile, but as the New York Times’ report noted, the developments nevertheless come with “practical and political significance.”
For years these stores of weapons-grade material were not a secret, but were lightly guarded at best; a reporter for The New York Times who visited the main storage site at Tokaimura in the early 1990s found unarmed guards and a site less-well protected than many banks. While security has improved, the stores have long been considered vulnerable.
The president’s legacy on this issue will be shaped by developments on multiple fronts, including tenuous talks with Iran.
But there has been movement. Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who’s spent much of his career focused on addressing the nuclear threat, told the NYT, “What President Obama has done is put it more on the front burner and accelerated the process…. Significant progress has been made – not enough.”